By Andrew Baisley and Cornel Yarmoloy - February 13, 2019 - Originally published in the Calgary Herald
Alberta’s public lands provide opportunity for recreation, forestry, livestock grazing and industrial development. These lands are tied to our lifestyle and prosperity. As hunters and anglers, we value our public lands for their diverse recreational and conservation opportunities.
Striking the balance between recreation, industry and environmental protection on multi-user landscapes is a legitimate challenge. However, we make it even more challenging than it needs to be.
The Bighorn Country proposal is in the news yet again following recent public information sessions. For much of the consultation period, inflamed partisan rhetoric has dominated dialogue about Bighorn Country, leaving the impression that Albertans are deeply divided over this issue. In fact, a recent scientific poll suggests that most Albertans like the general principles of the proposal.
This should not be surprising, given that many of the underlying tenets of the Bighorn proposal were initiated many years ago under the Eastern Slopes Policy and more recently, consultations and advice on development of the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan which was based on extensive public consultations with numerous stakeholders. The Wildland designation process for the area was initiated by past conservative governments, recreationalists, local businesses and conservation groups, as early as 1986, and is now advocated by the NDP. The current proposal is neither being rushed nor rammed through - it is one of the final steps in decades of work by previous governments and many stakeholder groups.
Although much rhetoric has been made about the proposal taking away opportunity from industry and recreationists, a read of the proposal shows that the Bighorn Country proposal maintains opportunity for all outdoor recreationists and industry. Careful planning and consultation by multiple provincial governments and multi-stakeholder groups over a period of decades has identified appropriate uses throughout the region. This proposal is formalizing those decisions to allow for clear rules around the protection of fish and wildlife habitat, recreation opportunity, and managing increasing use in an area that will undoubtedly face more pressure in the near future.
Bighorn Country, especially the area of the proposed West Country Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ) is affected by habitat fragmentation and motorized access that is detrimental to populations of native fish and wildlife. In this area and to the west, in the picturesque Bighorn backcountry, high recreation use in certain areas has created problems with random motorized camping, trash and human waste.
Maintaining wilderness values and ecological integrity doesn’t mean zero motorized or industrial use. It means that such use needs to be carefully considered and potential adverse effects appropriately mitigated. For motorized recreationists, designation of the West Country PLUZ will allow volunteer groups to have certainty that the money and hours they graciously donate to the construction and reclamation of safe and ecologically sustainable designated trails will not go to waste. The PLUZ designation will allow for high-quality trails to be protected through planning, and abuses to be identified and prevented through enforcement.
Like many others, we venture to the Bighorn to fish for native trout, hike, camp, ride horses, drive designated trails and hunt big game and upland birds in the fall. For all recreationists who cherish the solitude of the wilds, the experience we seek in the backcountry depends on the conservation of wilderness areas and large areas of effective and functional fish and wildlife habitat. Designating Bighorn Country is the right step to ensure backcountry adventure and conservation of fish and wildlife habitat.
We don’t think the Bighorn Country proposal is perfect, but it gets the big things right. There is still an opportunity for us to have our say about what we like and what we would like to see done differently. With the February 15 deadline for public consultation fast approaching, it is time for those with a stake in the Bighorn to promote a conservation process which started decades ago and provide constructive feedback on the Bighorn Country proposal. Ensure that the provincial government planners have the tools they need to refine the proposal to reflect the long-term goals of Albertans. Make your voice heard.
Andrew Baisley and Cornel Yarmoloy are both avid outdoorsmen and board members for the Alberta chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.